Sunday 29 April 2012

The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (Canongate Books: 2011) - A novel following the world's last werewolf as he finds new reasons to live a life he'd given up on.

Writing a book review blog is not all champagne flutes and red carpets. There are some real hardships involved as well.

Take for example the open ridicule to which I’m exposed every Sunday morning when a new post goes up. Or the delicate social situations that arise when you’re forced to review a book that’s been recommended by a friend.

But worst of all, the absolute pit of the sufferings to which your faithful book blogger avails himself on your behalf, is the damned enforced variety. The need to read something from a different stable week in week out. Sure, it broadens horizons and makes for a broader blog, but it also keeps me away from the books I love for long periods.

I am of course speaking about Glen. You GBR regulars will know Glen. I’ve talked of him before, usually with a hopeless look in my eyes. If I could have, I would have read all his books by now. But I’ve resisted, because you lot don’t want review after review of Glen Duncan.

But after last week’s wash out, I thought I deserved a treat. And Glen Duncan was it.

And he didn’t disappoint (as if he would). This is his offering from last year, and it’s punctuated with the same powerful, thought provoking prose that is the hallmark of all his books.

This is, let’s be honest, a book about werewolves. It could easily descend into absolute farce. Laziness could kick in, and it could be all "frenzied roar" and "blind fury". But not in Glen’s hands (yeah, I’m calling him by his first name now. We’re serious).

Glen still makes room amongst the fast paced plot for his intelligence, using his painfully human approach to dig down and get to the essence of what it is to be a werewolf. It becomes real. You start forgetting this is the world of fantasy authors, and just get lost in the humanity of it. It doesn’t stick out, it’s not the obnoxious guy at the dinner party - Glen manages to discuss love, life, and existence in a thrillingly clever (and often beautiful) way without gate-crashing the story. It hooks you. Or at least it does me.

Which is why I wilted a little in the second half (or maybe even just the last third) of this book. It feels like Glen blew himself out a little in the first chunk. The plot eventually conquers all. The wit and charm of his earlier philosophizing disappears under the juggernaut of getting-the-story-told. Where he does try to revisit some of the earlier themes, it’s done fleetingly and (dare I say it) a little repetitively.

This is the most Hollywood of his books (or the ones I’ve read, anyway). It’s more of an obvious page turner. He uses cliff hangers with less restraint. He’s getting more commercial, I can feel it. But his voice is still there. And it still blew me away in sections.

I can’t help but continue to love Glen. Really, I can’t help it. I’ve tried. And I can’t.


You, without a book review blog to write every week, go use your freedom to read all of Glen’s books now. Take it from a man who has to ration himself.

After that reconnection with an old flame, I might just return to Wodehouse next week. After all, I’ve only written about him once. I’m due another ration.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Fiasco - a fairly apt title

Fiasco by Imre Kert├ęsz (Translation, Melville House: 2011). A man who has survived the Nazi concentration camps returns home to a Soviet controlled home, and struggles to navigate his way through a changed world.
Part of the point of this is to make sure I read a bunch of different stuff. Knowing that, at the end of a book, I need to come on here and tell you guys about it – it means I don’t want to read the same sort of thing week in week out. You’d get bored with that. You’re renowned for your short attention span. People talk about it behind your back sometimes.
So I heard about this book by a Hungarian author. One that won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I thought why not. I’ve never read a Hungarian author before. Or a Nobel Prize winning book. So this will be something new to write about.
And it is. Something new to write about, that is. I’ll tell you what this book is not. It is not readable. It is not smooth. It is not flowing. It is not fun or enlightening or riveting.
All sounds a bit negative Nancy, doesn’t it. Sorry to bring the tone down, I’m sure you were having a super day until now. A really sunshine one. But I didn’t enjoy this book. And I won’t lie to you. I can’t, I shan’t.
There are, however, some redeeming factors. I can see what the purpose of the book was. It is clever in a lot of ways, and the style of the first part (the hundred or so pages before chapter 1 starts) is quirky and new and intelligent. I liked the idea of it, the rhythm of the repetition and the slight comedy it brought to an otherwise purposefully stale scene. And the second part of the book, the actual story, had its plus points too. It had some pretty interesting characters, and...
No, that’s me done trying to be positive. The bottom line is this just was not fun to read. And I know not all books need to be fun. They can be heartbreaking, or enriching, or interesting, or exciting, or scary, or pretty much any other strong emotion. But this was none. It elicited nothing extreme from me. Not even anything  endearingly small. Just a bit of boredom.
I get what was being attempted. I appreciated the cleverness. I recognised the sadness, and the political backdrop. But I got over that pretty quick, and then just got sleepy as the book rambled on and stumbled through a string of unremarkable events.
This book never connected with me. It was a literary exercise more than it was a good read. And the GBR scale is nothing if not a measure of good-read-ness.
Can’t bring myself to give something Nobel Prize winning a 1 GBR, or God forbid even a 0 GBR. But honestly, don’t bother with this. Go do something else instead. Pick some flowers, watch some birds, even do some exercise. Anything.
Next week, something a great deal more. Just more. Something to make me want to read again.

Sunday 15 April 2012

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - risky business

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (Canongate: 2010) Philip Pullman separates Jesus Christ into two men, and retells one of the most influential stories in the world from a different perspective. The questions he raises aren’t new, but some of the answers he suggests are.
I'd meant to do a vaguely Easter review last week, but priorities shifted.

So, seven days late, Merry Easter Holiday everybody! In celebration, the most Easter related book on my shelf gets a turn on GBR.

This is part of a series where famous authors take classic myths and retell them in their own way. I know, Pullman’s being a bit inflammatory in taking the story of Christ and labelling it a myth, right? Bet he’s tons of fun at a dinner party.
That’s not an argument I want to get involved with. Not out loud anyway. No one tends to win there. Just hurt feelings and bad judgements. So I’m going to leave it alone.
Religion v atheism aside, you’ve got to love the ambition of this. One of the world’s most enduring stories, Pullman picks it up and takes complete ownership of it. Believer or not, it shows a huge amount of confidence to take the story of Christ and very publicly inject your own imagination. Similar enough in all the big ways to be recognisable, keeping all the big events, but changing contexts and characters and smaller events to turn it into something new. The result is a book that deals with massive themes in new ways, and explores the nature of storytelling.
It’s high concept. The fundamental changes reinvigorate the plot and give it new angles. The end result is something that confuses as much as it enlightens. Whether you believe the Bible or not, most of us at least treat it with a degree of respect as a symbol of the strong beliefs of others. As you’re reading this book, you can’t help but retain some of that quiet respect, but you’re also kept constantly off balance by the knowledge that this was made up by some guy in his writing shed.
It’s an odd effect. And probably the one Pullman was going for. A mixture of an ancient, timeless tone with something new and unfamiliar.
Unfortunately, to achieve it, Pullman had to be quite restricted in the language he uses. This is a man that spins a mighty yarn. He’s created entire worlds on his own, and described them vividly enough to earn mega multi-movie contracts. In this book though, in order to ape the Bible, the language is kept incredibly simple. You can hear the voice of a Church of England vicar reading the words out in monotone over a golden lectern. Which helps in creating the Bible feel. But does nothing to make this readable or compelling.
It’s a fairly short book, but it’s slow. And it’s not exciting. It only entertains in flashes, and relies a huge amount on the idea rather than the execution.
Pullman gets points for the concept here. And he gets points for achieving a consistent tone, and for successfully recreating a very specific feel. But novels should be entertaining too, in one way or another. There’s a place for literary exercises, but I’m not sure GBR is it. Not unless they can be readable as well.
I was pretty disappointed in this. I had high hopes. I loved the idea. But I only very mildly enjoyed the book that it begat. (You like that? That’s my own piece of Biblical language. Bullseye).
Next week, I’ll probably have finished the Hungarian thing I’m trudging through at the moment. One to look forward to, I know.

Saturday 7 April 2012


Have spent most of today trying to come to terms with the pretty unreal news that Carts has gone. Haven't figured out how to do that yet, so thought I'd try writing.

Carts was one of a number of faces I saw most Saturdays at rugby. Someone I eagerly shared a few beers with when the chance arose. I doubt I figured high on his frequent numbers list, but whenever we were in the same place at the same time, he'd give me a smile and a handshake and make like I was his oldest friend. Every now and then, if I'd been good, I'd even get a hug.

That was the kind of guy he was. In his eyes and in his company, everyone was a friend. He stepped into a changing room or onto a pitch or into a pub, and brought so much happiness and brightness that it was hard to avoid. He was one of those guys that made you feel ten feet tall to be around.

That's why I thought so much of him. Here was a guy with a wide circle of close friends. A man with talents and wit and warmth. A man who could easily make the minimum of effort with new or fringe people, in the knowledge that his life was fun enough already. But he didn't. Every time I saw him, he treated me like he'd missed me, like it was a pleasure to see me again. He didn't have to. Lord knows I'm awkward enough at times, I take a while to get out of my shell. But Carts didn't care. Carts smiled and chatted with me all the same.

In my eyes, that's huge. It's why I thought he was amazing. I hope he knew.

The news today hit me far harder than I ever could have imagined it would. I'm not sure if writing about it now is the right thing to do. It doesn't feel enough. But it's helping stop the tears from pushing out for a little while. And I don't think the world can ever be full enough of good words for Nathan Carter.

He was one of the best. That he's not here anymore is unfair. But I'll think of him often, and I'm sure once the tears leave me alone, I'll smile about him often too.

I'll miss you Carts. An awful lot of people will. Try and behave up there.

Monday 2 April 2012

Prague, shuffling truffles, and awesome tees

Prague, apprently
No review this week boys and girls. By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be rocking back and forth in some corner of a Prague hotel room, three quarters of the way through a stag do. By the magic of “scheduled publishing” though, I’m able to get this up at the usual Sunday morning time. I love the internet sometimes.

So instead of a review, I wanted to let you guys know about this. And this. And this. Book themed t-shirts! Brilliant.

I love Truffle Shuffle. But they’ve outdone themselves here. They really have. These are brilliant.

By the way, my birthday is on October 6th, and I’m a size medium. Just sayin’.